Writing A Strong First Chapter

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

To kick off this post, let's read a few strong, opening lines...shall we? We'll start with my favorite.

 

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.


J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

 

I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT THAT OPENING.

It's intriguing, funny, strange. It engages the senses and gives great visuals right from the start. It's telling >> Hobbits value comfort. And it 100% sucked me in the first time I read it.


Okay, let's keep going...

 

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.


Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games

 

First the colors.

Then the humans.

That's usually how I see things.

Or at least, how I try.


***HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***

You are going to die.


Markus Zusak's The Book Thief

 

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.


Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

 

Two hundred angry soldiers crammed in tents along the ridge of a high hill, and the air carries nothing but silence. Smoke from fires rises into a cloudy, starless sky. 

The dead linger. 


Anonymous

(Okaaaaaaay it's my WIP.)

 

I love opening lines/paragraphs/chapters. I'm a bit obsessed. And I'm one of those readers who writers are warned about; I flip to the opening chapter, read a few lines, and judge if I want to buy/borrow solely based on those hundred or so words.


BUT...since I am a writer in addition to a reader, I do tend to put a lot of pressure on myself in this area. If I desire to be WOW'd...I must attempt to WOW.


First chapters could easily be a long, drawn out conversation. You could teach a whole workshop on this. But for now, we'll keep things short(ish). I'll outline FIVE suggestions for writing a strong first chapter.




(PLEASE REMEMBER as always that these are suggestions...not hard rules. Follow your gut. Most of my writing is instinctive. Creativity is best worn like wings.)


#1. Setting the tone with strong opening lines.


It's important to remember that individual chapters may carry varying moods, but the underlying tone of the story should remain...or transition naturally with the plot or character growth.


{To be honest, I think all of the suggestions I'll give in this post AID in setting the tone. When I'm writing, I always keep this advice at the front of my mind:

EVERYTHING YOU WRITE SHOULD SERVE A PURPOSE.}

 

Part of setting the tone comes with introducing the story's voice.

In the above opening for The Book Thief, we learn from the start that the narrator is blunt and very visually minded. Observant. And his statement: "You are going to die" sets a tone. Death will play a large role in this story. We get a good idea of what to expect in both tonality and content.


In the Hunger Games opening, the mood (atmosphere, tone) is established through a few elements, even if at the beginning, we don't understand the depth of meaning.

The cold bed.

Seeking Prim's warmth.

Then that final line of the paragraph: "This is the day of the reaping."

{I'm a big fan of strong ENDING lines, too.}


George Orwell's 1984 opens with:

"It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."


This single line sets a tone of curiosity and distrust. Something's off...strange...and we want to know more.


Strong opening lines work like hooks, and avid readers can tell right away if they'll gel with the author's style.

(I'll do a separate post just on opening lines, but many of these suggestions apply.)


#2. Engage the senses.


One thing I attempt with every first chapter (and first line!) is to include as many sensory details as I can early on. At least two or three in the first few lines. The opening paragraph to my dystopian series reads:


There's a dripping sound echoing in this darkness. It might be the leaky pipe beneath the sink. Maybe the shower wasn't turned off completely, and water is falling from the sawed off pipe sticking out of the wall. Whatever it is, the sound is keeping me awake.


The dripping attempts to immediatly engage the reader's senses. Then it takes them around the dark room, searching with my MC for the source, bringing the lens back to the MC by the fourth line, where she continues with more sensory details:


I sit on my cot, my backed pressed to the wall. Cold seeps through my shirt.


The idea is that strategically placed sensory details can serve to engage the reader faster than info dumps or excessive backstory. The earlier, the better.


#3. Establish tension

This needs to happen yesterday.

A common 'rule' is that the first chapter should ALWAYS open with action. I heartily disagree. IMO, action has nothing to do with it. What you NEED is tension.


Now, the tension might very well be in the form of action, and that's great! But it could also be emotional tension. Or the tension could be built into the world itself.


In Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, the opening chapter builds on layers of tension, starting light, ultimately ending with:


Then, from down the beach, carried by the wind, they heard their daughter's voice.

She was screaming.


The tension throughout the whole chapter is masterfully crafted. Between the dynamic of the couple to the curiosity and naivety of the child, paired with jarring visuals (cutting scenes right after: And then the lizard scrambled up her arm, toward her face.), the whole scene moves along with suspense and energy.


But as mentioned before, tension can also come from emotions.


In John Green's The Fault in our Stars, the book opens with Hazel telling us about being clinically depressed due to childhood cancer, and that she was being made to attend a support group with other cancer patients/survivors. There she meets Augustus Waters, a very forward, intriguing boy with whom she quickly bonds. The tensions in this opening chapter are almost entirely emotional, hooking the reader through a blend of empathy, humor, and a budding romance.


A great method for creating tension is to end the chapter with intrigue, a question, danger, a thrilling prospect, or something else gripping. Worthy of a page turn.


After months of depression and loneliness, dreading the support group, grumbling to her mom about it, the first chapter of The Fault in our Stars ends like this:


I turned to the car. Tapped the window. It rolled down.

"I'm going to a movie with Augustus Waters," I said.

"Please record the next several episodes of the ANTM marathon for me."


#4. Keep the lens narrow.

This is the old rule: Don't over share.

Tell us what we need to know, but exercise restraint. The last thing you want to do is tire out your reader before they've made it through the first chapter. I tend to expect that in Austen novels, but in today's market, readers want an experience that pulls them along without making them work for it.

(Easy reading = Hard writing. Readers shouldn't have to work for it...because you already have.)

Here are a few tips:

* Only introduce necessary characters - We don't need to meet everyone in the first chapter, and not all background characters need full descriptions.

* Limit backstory. I'll be the first to admit that my dystopian series includes backstory in the opening chapter. But this can be done sparingly and creatively. In my case, I offered short glimpses of memory to help in character building:


"I hear the trees are so tall, they bend in the wind."

My father, mother, and I were sitting on the cracked tile floor in the heat of summer. Thick night air blew through the open window. I was five.

"And," Father continued, his dark hair wet with sweat, clinging to his forehead, "I hear the rain is so clean, you can catch it in your mouth and drink it."

He leaned his head back, mouth open, tongue out. I giggle.

..."One day, Hannah. You'll see. We'll all see...together."

My chest tightens and my nose burns.

I press the heels of my hands into my eye sockets until my eyeballs ache.


Find creative ways to weave in backstory. That way it feels natural to your reader. You can work this kind of stuff throughout your story, so don't feel rushed to get it all out at once. Only what's necessary at each given moment. Tell us what we NEED to know.

* Build gradually - This may be especially helpful if you're writing an epic. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien didn't start by introducing the entirety of Middle Earth. Instead he took his time, first focusing on the Shire. Teaching us about Hobbits and introducing the main Hobbit characters, as well as Gandolf. Expanding as the story progressed.


#5. Try opening with dialogue.

Anton Myrer's Once An Eagle opens with dialogue between the humble roots hero, Sam Damon, and Celia Harrodsen, the rich hometown girl who's crushed on him since she was thirteen. He's clever and broody, and she's sharp and fiery. The dynamic between them is great. She's pining for a future close to home, but he's dreaming of adventure and heroism somewhere else.


"It all seems so faraway," Celia Harrodsen said. "Paris and Berlin. And poor little Belgium. Sam, do you honestly think we'll get mixed up in it?"

"I told you I do."

"Well, nobody else seems to think so."

"I can't help that."

Celia put her teeth on her lower lip. "You're just saying that because you want to go over there and see the world. Don't you try and fool me, Sam Damon."

..."Anyways," she went on, "Father says we aren't so foolish as to get involved in futile European conflicts."

"Maybe," Sam Damon answered. ..."Only sometimes you get involved in something whether you want to or not."

"Oh, you're so sure of yourself." He made no reply, which irritated her still more....she stared at him for a moment, hard, then tossed her head. "You don't know everything."

"Don't I?" he said, and grinned.


If your characters are interesting, dialogue is a great way to get things rolling and connect readers. Just remember to keep it natural. Realistic. Try speaking it out loud.


Whatever you choose, I suggest walking away from it for a few hours/days afterward. Come back with a fresh mind. And don't be afraid of rewrites. I wrote the opening chapter of Slave (Book One) no less than a dozen times. And some looked very different from the final version.

 

This post has grown lengthy, so I'll leave it at that for now! I hope you find these suggestions helpful. Please feel free to comment or message if you have any questions of thoughts. You've got this!


Til the next,

Always,

Laura Fran










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